What about the non-main characters?

by | Apr 15, 2014 | Ask the Author, Forum Archives

I feel the part of the Soul technique where I’m most vulnerable has to do with supporting characters. Thoughts?

Started by Bernard Rice on 2014-04-15 at 23:13

I feel the part of the Soul technique where I’m most vulnerable has to do with supporting characters.

I typically just write, and find the structure as I go and fix it in the end. I try to make my characters believable and interesting, and they usually take on a life of their own.

The result is, I sometimes (often?) end up with a play (I usually write plays) which has several characters vying for the “main” slot. This means that, unless I’m lucky, I have to work hard to discover who’s really carrying the ball, as it were.

I have studied other writing theories which suggest that the best work covers all the bases. That is, the function of support characters is to make sure questions the audience may have which the main character would not be motivated to raise are raised by other characters, and, as I say, in a perfect world there isn’t a question that could be raised that isn’t addressed by some character at some point.

Unless I inadvertently skipped a chapter, I don’t see much in the Soul book about the rest of the ensemble aside from the main character.

Still more to the point, the Soul method seems to be saying that unless the main character is concerned with something—whether or not he or she knows it—it, whatever it is, doesn’t belong in the story. This contrast with my feeling, learned elsewhere, that all objections an audience might make should be dealt with by supporting characters--or dealt with somehow, sometimes by the fictional circumstances of the story.

In fact, I probably understand better than I’m posting here that any story should have the focus of a “proposition”—a point—and that point is the main character's journey. Still I feel I need more information regarding the role of non-main characters in the Soul method. Maybe just a bit more…. Thoughts?

Roger replied...

Bernie, the techniques presented in the book do address the matters you raise here.

To identify the main character, I recommend the "main character thought experiment" outlined in Chapter 6. Yes, your story might contain any number of characters, but somewhere in the mix is the one for whom the magical satisfaction of her intent would stop the story in its tracks and take away its reason to go on. Find her, and you've found your main character.

And actually, the concept (presented in the book) of the core ensemble is specifically designed to cover all the thematic bases, because each character in it sheds his/her own light on the issue that lies at the heart of the story theme. That light might come in the form of direct support of or opposition to the main character or in the form of a side story that does not factor directly into the main story but is related to the issue nonetheless. And any character who does not relate to the issue, might not need to be in the story. (Also, two characters who manifest identical relationships to the issue might be better combined into one character.)

One excellent example of this use of the core ensemble can be found in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, where each character represents a different perspective on the issue of "finding one's soul mate." It's also illustrated well by an episode of The Andy Griffith Show titled "Opie's Charity" (1960) in which Andy's son Opie sheds powerful light on the issue of "concerning yourself with outward appearance at the expense of inner truth" even though his story is the B story in the episode.

Bernard Rice commented...

Thanks, Roger. You're right on all points, of course.

The challenge remains for me to apply the principle of the core ensemble, to make sure everything (and every character) relates to the theme, and in effect plays off the main character, while trimming any ineffective repetition. If I write, as I confessed I do, rather freely and fix after, letting my characters develop without much supervision, I end up with characters who often don't belong in the same story together. My choice is either to cut them or bend them to my will to fit. I'm not psychotic--I know I was them all along--but if I have many different potential themes started, I have to make a choice and... well, somehow "fix" things with a lot more focus on theme than I am accustomed to applying. I've worked on character ensembles where I've actually had to hammer at the main character's makeup if I wanted the ensemble to work, altering the theme and the core of my story to accommodate characters I didn't want to lose.

I'm confident I can write through all this, you only repeated here with emphasis what you've already developed in your Soul technique, and I will leverage the parts of the technique (love "intent" and all its ramifications to "success," etc.) and just make my themes coherent and recombine, cut, or assign characters to other stories as necessary.

Thanks again.

Bernard Rice replied...

A week later, and I'm taking one more shot at the notion of a character's "main-ness."

I fully appreciate the "main character thought experiment," and it works. So kudos to you, Roger, for that.

I habitually develop my characters to the fullest extent I can, and using the Soul method, I treat each character as if they were the main one. I apply the thought experiment and see when the "magical satisfaction" of each character's intent stops the story dead in its tracks. As if there were a runaway steam locomotive on each of those tracks, you may be anticipating my problem: It seems reasonable to me that each character's intentions, if magically satisfied, might stop the story dead, just that it would be a different story for each character that would be halted.

Perhaps, then, it's simple enough to decide which story I wish to tell, for whatever reason, and set the other stories aside. Of course, when I set those other stories aside, since plot develops from character, I'm effectively setting those other characters aside as well. If I don’t want to lose them, I must reintroduce them in some way that the intentions they express shed “his / her own light" on the issue at the heart of the story theme, the issue best served by the main character's intentions. I have a problem with these other characters, whose intentions, and consequently their stories, are rarely in sync with the main character. As in life, characters aren’t intrinsically so alike—or natural opposites.

Thinking about this, I realize I often don't have more than two characters at a time that are so simbiotic--two lovers, a pair of antagonists, a husband and wife—their intentions in sync or clearly at odds—the two combinations that best keep a story on track to the same destination. As I introduce other characters their intentions tend to derail the train. The husband doesn’t need two wives, or two antagonists. As a Sanford Meisner method-trained stage actor, I basically experience theater as two actors at a time playing off each other. As a writer, my most successful work involves only two actors at a time, often only two actors, period. The Soul method has helped me realize that when I’ve introduced more characters, I may be introducing too many stories. Although a short play or story may not have time for more than one character, and certainly a novel may introduce many, I suspect that the Soul method would have it that even in a long form the train’s destination should be the same.

So far in the Soul method hasn’t satisfactorily addressed this issue for me. The “main character thought experiment” feels insufficient to me. You can discover the main character using the experiment only if the other characters are either similar to the main character, in direct opposition to the main character, or are under-developed. Because if a character is developed fully it’s likely that magically fulfilling their intentions will stop the story dead in its tracks as well, depending on which story you want to tell.

I want to continue to develop every character to the fullest extent, and at the same time I want more efficient ways to integrate them into one thematic whole. I probably don't want to simply designate a main character and diminish the others. Right now, the only valid way I feel I can do this is to only allow non-main characters face time when they contribute to the theme. When they start to assert their own theme, it's time for them to leave the stage. Am I right? I can’t think of an alternative to this, and I know it will be challenging for me. Any suggestions welcome!

One more thing. You mention the "B" story of an Andy Griffith Show episode. I don't think you ever mention "B" stories in Discovering the Soul of Your story. Perhaps I may allow my supporting character more room to breathe, to live in their own themes, in non-A storylines? Does an alphabet soup of storylines still have to faithfully serve story A? May story B have it's own main character, grok, the entire overlay of Soul method posibilites, unrelated to story A? I’m thinking probably not. In the Griffith episode, you write that the B story "shed's powerful light" on the A story's issue. I assume this is because, and only because, Opie was a character who could honestly intend what was necessary to make story B strictly enforce the theme of story A. Perhaps Aunt Bea wouldn't have belonged in this episode. (I haven't seen it.)

I’ve tried to make my problem / challenge here clear, and I’m keenly aware I haven’t given concrete examples. Simply put, I do well with two characters. I run into problems introducing others because they quickly become runaway trains.

Will Cooper replied...

Bernie: I think of DSYS as an X-ray machine for narrative structure. (It can also be a 3-D printer, too, by applying Roger's meta-adaptation technique.) What I mean is that it's a quick, effective tool for determining whether the elements of a story have been assembled effectively and fully. You wouldn't want a skeleton's pelvis attached to its cranium; similarly, you wouldn't want a main character that lacks a distinct and driving motivation; or have a weakly conceived, poorly reified theme that leaves an audience confused about what they should feel or think about a story's overarching meaning.

DSYS is a tool for uncovering any such narrative disjointedness, and as I said (and Roger stresses), it's also a tool for prodding the imagination along fruitful paths in the discovery and construction of stories. Understanding that, DSYS is not the last word in narrative theory or practice. As you have hinted, there are hundreds of sources for solid information. Personally, I love McKee's Story; and of course there's Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and its many offspring that explore the deep influence of archetype in successful storytelling. Plus zillions of others.

As writers, we should take advantage of whatever we can. Every book I've ever read on playwriting has offered me something, maybe only a slightly different take on the familiar basics, but something that built on what I had already known. When the "experts" do disagree, that's when we need to assert our personal tastes and native judgement in choosing what works best for us. One approach may seem to us too mechanical or rigid, insisting that we follow a dogmatic rulebook of do's and don'ts; another might stress the need for divine intervention in opening up creatively, and we balk when we run across the word "divine"; or another might instruct us always to outline plot first, and let character build upon that, rather than the opposite.

In my opinion, there is no one correct way to tell a good story. The fundamentals that we all talk about reflect centuries (millenia?) of experience, and we violate them at our peril. However, many masterpieces don't fit into any neatly drawn paradigm; they seem to violate venerable principles of poetics in one way or another, and yet still work brilliantly.

What I find so helpful about DSYS is that no matter what kind of story we're telling, it can serve to identify its weaknesses or strengths. It can suggest avenues for us to explore for further development, or can point to where we need to leave well enough alone or focus on as a point of departure.

Now, as to the issue you raised when you wrote, "So far in the Soul method hasn’t satisfactorily addressed this issue for me. The “main character thought experiment” feels insufficient to me. You can discover the main character using the experiment only if the other characters are either similar to the main character, in direct opposition to the main character, or are under-developed. Because if a character is developed fully it’s likely that magically fulfilling their intentions will stop the story dead in its tracks as well, depending on which story you want to tell", I would suggest that you poll yourself about which character's story is the most important to you. In my opinion, it's not relevant to the experiment whether any other characters are "similar" to her or "in opposition" to her or are "under-developed". The only key consideration is whose story is the one you really care about.

In Hamlet, Gertrude, an oppositional character, wants her son to accept her marriage to Claudius, hook up with Ophelia, and stop rocking the royal boat. If she got her wish, the play would end, because that would imply that Hamlet had failed in his quest to get revenge for his father's murder. However, Gertrude isn't the play's main character. If Gertrude got her wish, we would be disappointed, because it was Hamlet' story that we cared about. When Hamlet culminates his bloody agenda and dies, the play does end, because it was his play; he was the main character.

Look at all your characters and ask the simple question, "If this character got her wishes fulfilled, would I be happy with ending the play at that point, or is there more that I want to tell and now can't?" I think this will separate the wheat from the chaff. You'll know at a gut level who the main character is. If you don't, then I would suggest you dig deeper into each character's story. Perhaps your characters are still too "under-developed" for you to be able to fix upon a main character. Keep exploring until one of their narrative threads begins to stand out; until you feel yourself getting more attached to it, more invested, and that character's fate begins to interest you most. If other characters seem too similar to this character, then you may consider eliminating them or incorporating their qualities into the one you've become more attached to.

Take care.

Bernard Rice replied...

Will, thanks! I like very much your simple way of leveraging the "magical fulfillment" idea to help decide which storyline is most interesting--and on reflection, it's in Roger's explanations as well, because to "stop" the story means exactly that, that there remains nothing else you need to hear about. So even if, as I was asking, all my well-developed characters are clamoring for their stories to be told, there's only one that (at least in theory) is "best," and once the writer realizes that the other characters' wonderful stories needn't be finished for this "best" story to be told gives a guideline for what to trim, be it the details of a lesser character's irrelevant plotline, or even ditching the minor character entirely. Yes, your answer was helpful.

As to the part about all those other great theories, I agree, and I'm sure Roger does to. It's just particularly nice for me, given my nature as a writer, to have something profound yet practical like DSYS method as a way to just get it done, as they say. And this one part about how to handle the lesser characters was the one thing that seemed to be hanging me up. DSYS is just a tool, but it's like that as-seen-on-TV wrench I have in my toolkit, unless I need a hammer or a saw, I just grab that wrench and I'm good.

Thanks, Will!

Will Cooper replied...

My pleasure, Bernie. By the way, if you feel really strongly that more than one of your characters deserves top billing, then maybe you've got more than one story to tell.

Bernard Rice replied...

True that, Will!

Roger replied...

Bernie, I do agree with Will regarding resources of understanding for writing and storytelling. And I liked McKee's Story a lot, except for the section on dialogue, which I found much less useful than the rest.

It's apparent that you are able to conceive of rich, colorful, and motivated characters. It's just that the “salon” of the story gets too crowded as more and more of them show up (some uninvited, I’m guessing) and no one voice can be heard uniquely above the din once the wine starts flowing. (I'll be using a couple of different analogies here.)

Although the DSYS principles hinge on the main character, they do not demand or even recommend that the other characters be underdeveloped. In fact, to make full use of each member of the core ensemble, he/she must be developed as completely as possible.

This is as true in a story as it is in representational art, where the fact that a painting has a definite subject does not mean that the background elements are underdeveloped. In fact, the better developed they are, the more context and meaning they can shed on the main subject.

It's the same thing with the core ensemble of characters in a story, regardless of story form (play, screenplay, novel, short story, etc.).

Maybe it would help to think of yourself as a gardener who grows characters instead of flowers. And you have a very green thumb, so your garden is overflowing with plant life and each of your flowers is unique and interesting in its own way.

Now, we-the-audience ask you to tell us a story about just one of the flowers—whichever you like... you pick. So you wander through your garden and select the flower that you'll tell us the story about.

But, of course, you can't tell us the story of that flower without including information about its local ecology—not only the soil it grows in and its own growth characteristics but how that growth is affected by all of the other plants that surround it. So you'll need to include them in the story about the flower. And the more we understand them, the more we'll be able to understand how they influence the "main flower" that the story is about—but that doesn't make the story about them. You're filling us in on their details only because those details come to bear in some way on the life of the "main flower."

Is one of the plants a companion to the flower you picked—in a symbiotic relationship? Is another one of them a weed that the "main flower" has had to struggle against to grow to the point that it has? Is another one adversely affected by the growth of the "main flower"—maybe because the bigger the "main flower" gets the less sunlight is available to its companions, so that their very existence is threatened? And does it have the capacity to fight back?

These other plants are the core ensemble of the "main flower" that you picked to tell the story about. And the more we-the-audience know about them, the better we understand the story of the "main flower." But the story is still completely about the "main flower," because that's what we-the-audience asked for.

So pick one flower (character) and tell us its story, including everything we need to know about its local ecology. And if one of the other flowers (characters) seems interesting enough to merit its own story, tell us that one later, and include the "main flower" in this one as part of its core ensemble.

Bernard Rice replied...

Roger, thanks. I have found the extended metaphors you've shared with me most helpful. You create these fictional vignettes which illustrate a point, and I feel the story lessons themselves are as instructive as any other good fiction, sharing ideas in a beguiling way that allows your reader to fill in more details and make it his own. You've given me a roller coaster, a palace, and now a garden. You might consider a companion edition to your DSYS, a book with pictures and companion extended metaphors, illustrating the creative writing process. So again, thanks.

Whenever I spend time thinking and particularly writing about craft I always feel a tad guilty I'm not writing my fiction, my play--some claim Anais Nin fritted a promethean talent away writing journals. But I'm glad I did here, glad I learned something about my next steps from this thread.

I'm eager now to return to applying the principles of DSYS, the wonderful tool you've shared with us.

TTYL

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